Prime Minister Scott Morrison has responded to accusations Australia was neglecting its Pacific neighbours by suggesting the coalition increased aid to the region by 50 per cent.
The claim is correct when factoring in “temporary” COVID-19 support payments, which were introduced in the 2020/21 financial year but are scheduled to continue until at least 2022/23. Including these payments, Australia provided $1.721 billion of development assistance to Pacific nations in 2020/21, a 56 per cent nominal increase on 2012/13 aid spending in the region.
The prime minister made the claim on March 26 in response to an allegation by former prime minister Kevin Rudd that Australia has cut “hundreds of millions of dollars” of Pacific Island aid since the change of government in 2013 (audio mark 3:14).
“I know that the former prime minister was putting some figures around the other day – just straight wrong,” Mr Morrison told journalists. “They’re just not true. We actually increased our investment in overseas development assistance in the Pacific by 50 per cent. It was a step up because we had to step up from where Labor was investing in this area.”
Mr Morrison’s office did not respond to AAP FactCheck’s request to provide a source for the claim. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) publishes a detailed breakdown of Australia’s overseas aid spending since 1974, broken down by recipient countries and regions.
Those figures show in the financial year 2012/13 – Labor’s final full financial year in power – the federal government spent $1.101 billion on official development assistance for Papua New Guinea and Pacific island countries.
According to the same data, Australia provided $1.721 billion in aid to the Pacific region in 2020/21, which equates to a 56 per cent increase when compared to 2012/13.
The 2020/21 figure included $273 million (page 15) in ‘temporary and targeted’ COVID-19 support payments for Pacific nations to help improve access to vaccines and support the region’s pandemic recovery.
Excluding the so-called ‘temporary, targeted and supplementary’ (TTS) payments, Australia’s Pacific aid spending in 2020/21 was $1.448 billion, which is a 31 per cent increase on the 2012/13 figure.
AAP FactCheck‘s figures were verified by Terence Wood, an international aid expert who oversees the Australian Aid Tracker database run by the Development Policy Centre at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy.
Dr Wood said the accuracy of the prime minister’s claim essentially came down to whether or not the COVID-19 relief was counted towards Australia’s aid spending; he believed it should be included.
“In my view, as almost all of the TTS spending meets OECD rules regarding what counts as government aid, it is correct to call it aid,” he said in an email.
Dr Wood added that the prime minister’s claim of a 50 per cent aid boost is only correct when using nominal figures. When inflation and the TTS spending is taken into account, the increase in Pacific aid between 2012/13 and 2020/21 is around 35 per cent, according to Dr Wood’s calculations.
The boost from the additional COVID-19 funding in 2020/21 represented the first increase in total aid spending since the coalition came to power in 2013, meaning Australia’s aid expenditure had been falling as a proportion of GDP.
Dr Wood told AAP FactCheck that Australian aid for the Pacific “had been languishing” until more funding was added in 2018/19. Figures supplied by Dr Wood showed that Australian aid to the Pacific dropped by around $108 million in real terms between 2012/13 and 2017/18 before beginning to rise in real terms the following year.
The official DFAT figures reveal aid to the Pacific fell in nominal terms in the 2013/14 financial year to $1.062 billion and remained relatively steady for the next four years. However, in 2018/19 Pacific aid rose to $1.252 billion and then climbed to $1.397 billion before the introduction of the COVID support in 2020/21.
DFAT's 2021/22 aid budget (page 4) estimates Australia's aid spending in the Pacific region will fall to $1.617 billion, including $174.8 million in temporary COVID-19 relief. The 2022/2023 aid budget (page 4) - published three days after Mr Morrison made the claim in question - allocates $1.833 billion for the Pacific, including $332.4 million relating to COVID-19.
The claim that the coalition government increased development aid for the Pacific region by 50 per cent is correct. Including temporary COVID-19 support, Australia spent $1.721 billion on overseas aid in the Pacific region in 2020/21, a 56 per cent nominal rise when compared to 2012/2013 - the last full year of Labor government.
True – The claim is accurate.
Updated Friday, April 1, 2022 11:05 AEDT: Corrects $1.062 million reference to $1.062 billion.